UN Independent Expert Manfred Nowak Urges OPCAT Ratification

“Data collected for the study and well-grounded scientific approximations indicate that, altogether, a minimum of between 1.3 and 1.5 million children are deprived of liberty per year. Of those, the largest number are in institutions (430,000–680,000), followed by those in the administration of justice (410,000), migration-related detention (330,000), in armed conflict situations (35,000) and for national security reasons (1,500). An additional 19,000 children are living with their primary caregivers in prisons. The Independent Expert wishes to stress that those figures are arrived at on the basis of scientifically sound methodologies, yet remain highly conservative owing to the scarcity of official and reliable disaggregated data. In particular, the figures do not include the approximately 1 million children in police custody and an even higher number of children deprived of liberty de facto in institutions.”

Professor Manfred Nowak – Independent Expert leading the global study on children deprived of liberty (UN Doc. A/74/136, 11 July 2019) §86.


On 8 October 2019 the Independent Expert leading the global study on children deprived of liberty, Professor Manfred Nowak, submitted his final report on the ‘Global study on children deprived of liberty’ to the Third Committee of the General Assembly during its 74th session in New York.

As noted in the summary of the report, in its resolution 69/157 of 18 December 2014, the General Assembly invited the Secretary-General to commission an in-depth study on children deprived of liberty.

Professor Manfred Nowak was appointed as Independent Expert leading the study in October 2016, which is the first scientific attempt, on the basis of global data, to comprehend the magnitude of the situation of children deprived of liberty, its possible justifications and root causes, as well as conditions of detention and their harmful impact on the health and development of children. The above quotation highlights the enormous scale of the global phenomenon.

Prison 4040 by Sylvia Westenbroek (2006)

In the study Professor Nowak examines six situations of children deprived of their liberty, including in the administration of justice, children living in prisons with their primary caregivers, migration-related detention, institutions, armed conflict and national security contexts. In Canada children and young persons are deprived of their liberty in various such settings, including young offenders institutions, immigration detention centres, mental health and social care facilities, not to mention police detention facilities.

Among his numerous concerns and recommendations Professor Manfred Nowak noted with some alarm that:

“The absence of independent monitoring bodies with the mandate of carrying out unannounced visits to all places of detention contributes to the continuation of … conditions, which can amount to inhuman and degrading treatment.” (§97)

In this same connection the Independent Expert advanced the following key recommendation:

“States are strongly encouraged to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and to establish independent and effective national preventive mechanisms with a particular expertise, to conduct visits to places where children are, or may be, deprived of liberty.” (§104)

Manfred Nowak by Phil Strahl (2007)

To date, 90 out of 193 United Nations Member States have ratified the OPCAT. Canada, like the neighbouring USA, is not one of these countries, despite making repeated assertions that it would ratify this key UN instrument. In stark contrast, most countries in the Central and Southern parts of the Americas are States Parties to the instrument, begging the very good question why Canada is lagging so far behind the rest of the hemisphere? If Argentina, Mexico and Brazil can ratify the OPCAT (all federal states to boot), why not Canada?


Find out more about Children Deprived of Liberty – The United Nations Global Study.

Read the report in English or in French.

Examine recent reports about the treatment of young offenders in Alberta and Manitoba.

See which countries have ratified the OPCAT.

Learn more about how Canada might ratify and implement the OPCAT.